The Addition of One Word Alone

It’s funny how you can read a passage of Scripture a dozen times, two dozen times, a hundred times, and never see something in that text until you read it with a specific question in mind. I have been working on a series of lessons on Christ, culture, and faith, and as a part of that study have been looking at Romans 1-5 (in particular) and, almost by necessity, incorporating the teaching of James. Although I have read James countless times, for once one little word jumped out at me as if it was stoked on performance enhancing drugs. More on that in a moment.

If you read virtually anything written by a card-carrying, approved member of the evangelical intelligentsia you will read, again and again, that we Christians are saved by “grace alone through faith alone.” It is a mantra repeated ad nauseam. It’s most quoted champion is the reformer Luther. However, you do not have to be a Lutheran to promote that line of thought. We humans cannot do anything to save ourselves, to think so would be to preach “works salvation,” so therefore we are saved by grace alone through faith alone.

The only problem, and it is a whopper, is that no one, not one single New Testament writer, wrote or said such a thing.

Now, there is no question that the apostle Paul said we are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:5, 8), a point that was tragically overlooked for decades by many ministers within the Churches of Christ. But – and I make this point emphatically – the word alone never appears in Paul’s writings in relation to saving faith. Once again, no reader of Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, or any other of Paul’s books for that matter, can come to any other conclusion other than the fact we are saved by God’s grace through faith.

Which brings me to the book of James.

Theologians have wrestled with the relationship of the teachings of Paul to James for centuries. The problem boils down to one fairly small section of James’s letter – James 2:14-26. In those brief paragraphs James excoriates the idea that mere acceptance of a doctrine or set of doctrines can constitute “faith.” And, tucked right in the middle of that section of his letter James writes this:

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:24)

In one amazing little sentence James totally contradicts the Lutheran/Protestant mantra. We are not saved by faith alone. Not. Read it again – not! If you are waiting for me to untangle the relationship between Paul and James you are going to have to wait a while, and probably attend about 13 weeks of classes. The point I want to make here is that James did write something that contradicts what so many think that Paul wrote – and Paul never wrote what they believe he must have. (If that sentence is confusing to you, you should see how confusing it is to me.)

The statement is so stark that Luther – and I should say a great many modern evangelicals – simply cannot justify (pardon the pun) James with Paul, and since Paul is regarded as being clearly superior – and spiritual – they simply reject James. As in, cut James out of the canon. As in, James is not inspired, so we have to listen to Paul and not James. As in, we are just so much smarter than 1,600 or 1,700 or even 1,800 years of Christian theology, so we can pick and choose which texts we are going to follow and which we are going to excise from the Bible.

This, to me, is simply staggering. Paul never says something and what he does not say becomes a part of “Christian” doctrine so rabidly promoted that to question it amounts to heresy, and James does say something so clear and unambiguous, and it is for all intents and purposes, simply cut out of the New Testament.

I can only think of three reasons why scholars, pastors, and Christian authors promote Luther to the utter and total exclusion of James 2:24. One, they do not know Greek, and so do not have access to verifying whether Paul did or did not use the word alone. Two, they do know Greek, but have simply swallowed the Lutheran doctrine to the point that they have no reason (in their mind) to verify whether Paul used the word alone or not. Those two reasons are sad, and are in reality without excuse (as a good English translation and concordance would reveal the same truth), but it is the third reason that I think is so tragic, and indefensible. The third reason is that they are aware that Paul never uses the word alone in relation to saving faith, but they are so beholden to defend the dogma of Lutheran/Protestant thinking that they willingly repeat the falsehood. In their mind Luther is so correct that Paul must have meant alone, even though he did not use the word, that they say “. . . through faith alone” again and again and again.

All of this just goes to illustrate why we need to be so careful – painstakingly so – in our writing. Speech is one thing; we can be forgiven for a little hyperbole here and a little sermonizing there (so long as what we say or sermonize is not certifiably false!). But when we write, when we put words on paper (or pixels on a blog) we must be so minutely careful that what we say is correct. Or, in the absence of that, that we go back and correct any false statements that we make.

I have no doubt that Luther’s intentions were utterly innocent. He was writing (and preaching) to confront ecclesiastical dogma that held people in complete terror. Hell awaited the slightest sin, and works of penance were beyond the ability of the average Christian; therefore the payment of indulgences became a source of comfort for the ignorant and a formidable source of income for the church. Luther was absolutely correct to bring “salvation by grace through faith” back into the Christian teaching. Where he erred was in adding one little word – alone.

May we be so careful, so diligent, to preach the New Testament fearlessly and honestly. But, let us be so careful, so diligent that we never add anything to the teaching of the inspired authors!


The Sin of Teaching Too Much (When You Expose Your Ignorance)

Big sigh. It happened again yesterday. I was skimming through one of my social media sites and just briefly read the introductory section of an interesting looking article. I can’t remember if it was in the first or second paragraph, but it was right up there close to the top, when the author wrote (in regard to John 3), “. . . ‘born again’ literally means ‘born from above.'”

Grrr and grrr.

First, let’s lay aside the fact that the author equated two English phrases that have no “literal” equivalence. However, what we cannot lay aside is the inference, nay, I would suggest, the very strong implication, that the Greek word behind the two phrases has a “metaphorical” or connotative meaning and a “literal” or denotative meaning. It doesn’t. That is just wrong. The author is trying to make a profound spiritual point, and all he did was expose his ignorance.

Just to set the record straight, I looked up in my Greek lexicon the Greek word under consideration (anothen, for those who are curious). The lexicon gives three primary definitions for the word, with a number of sub-definitions. Those definitions are: 1. locally, from above; 2. temporally, from the beginning or for a long time; and 3. again, anew. There you have it. Three meanings, three definitions. No “metaphorical” or “literal” about it. Some words have different meanings, and the context of the passage is controlling when we attempt to discern which possible meaning is appropriate for that passage. (The lexicon goes on to note that in John 3 the meaning is deliberately obscure, so as to generate discussion as to the meaning Jesus intended).

This discussion just goes to prove a mantra my first year Greek professor drilled into us Greek newbies – one year of Greek (or less) only serves to make you dangerous. It takes a minimum of two years, and far preferably more, before you can claim an adequate understanding of a foreign language. Another preacher friend said it this way – the purpose of learning Greek or Hebrew is not to discover of new world of hitherto unknown spiritual truths, it is to keep you from making some really profound, and stupid, mistakes.

This sort of problem is compounded nowadays with the proliferation of computer programs which parse and decline Greek words with the simple move of a cursor. This is not a problem for the wise user who understands his or her limitations and simply uses the program as an aid or tutor. Where it becomes a serious problem is when someone mouses over a word, gets a thumbnail description of the tense or declination of a word, and then goes off to wax eloquently about things he or she knows little or nothing about.

[Pet peeve and aside here – more and more theological schools and seminaries are reducing or eliminating the emphasis on biblical languages in their degree programs. This is a huge, and in my opinion, tragic, move. It is justified because once a graduate leaves the school, he or she never really makes use of the hours and hours spent memorizing arcane rules and words that only occur 10 or 15 times in the text. In my opinion, that is a response to a crisis by letting the inmates run the prison. Just because graduates do something stupid – and yes! I have done and still do the same stupid thing – is no reason to abandon a critical part of theological education. Rant over.]

The example I used above regarding John 3 is not really a huge issue – I think the author borrows on expertise he clearly does not have, but his topic is not of any huge exegetical or theological import. There are, however, other examples where the profession of knowledge one does not have does become critical.

Quite some time ago I was reading an article written by a fellow minister of the Churches of Christ. The topic of his article was a Greek preposition, one of those little words (in this case eis, pronounced by some as ice, but I prefer the pronunciation ace), that are notoriously difficult to translate in a number of instances. The targets of his ire were those who want Acts 2:38 to mean that the first hearers of Peter’s sermon were baptized because of the forgiveness of their sins, rather than for the purpose of having those sins removed. The entire point of his article is that this little word can never, in no way, absolutely not, never, ever, ever, be translated as “because of.”

Except it can, and in at least one case, it has to.

In Matthew  12:41 Jesus said, “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” You guessed it, the little word I highlighted is that same little word eis. In this context the only way you can make sense of the statement is to understand that the people of Nineveh repented as a result of, or because of, Jonah’s preaching. Jonah preached, they repented. If that is not a causative  meaning, I will eat my lexicon.

The meaning of eis in Acts 2:38 cannot mean “because of,” because the context will not allow it to mean “because of.” The sins of those in the audience had not been forgiven – they had just asked Peter what to do in order to have those sins forgiven!! Peter told them what to do in order for their sins to be forgiven – repent and be baptized. But – and this is critical – to base one’s theology on the vagaries of a little Greek preposition is just wrong. Talk about putting a hermeneutical cart in front of an exegetical horse! While I agree with my preacher brother that the use of eis in Acts 2:38 is “for the purpose of,” I lost a lot of respect for his exegetical skill (and maybe some of his integrity) because he based his argument on a false conclusion.

I will defend my understanding of truth until my face turns blue, but I refuse to use bad, or in this case, utterly incorrect arguments to do it.

The point is, if you only have a rudimentary knowledge of Greek or Hebrew, then recognize your weakness and don’t go around spouting information the truth or falsity of which you are absolutely clueless. If one year of university level Greek only serves to make a student dangerous, what is the result of training that is less than that?! By all means use those computer programs that help you understand more of the text – I am not arguing against their use as a helper, but they can only give you a thumbnail picture of what is going on. In order to fully understand and comprehend what is going on in the Greek or Hebrew, one must learn not only the grammar of the language (verb tenses and such), but the syntax (what it means for certain noun declensions and verb tenses to be used as they are) as well.

As the old adage goes, it is far better to remain silent and have people think you a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

Reading Report – 2018

Packing up 2018 and getting ready for 2019 –

This past year turned out to be quite a journey for the ol’ Freightdawg. The Smith family moved back to Colorado (yea!) but virtually simultaneously we discovered that my wife’s cancer returned (major yuck!). So, amidst all the relocating and multiple extended trips for therapy, I have not had the kind of time for reading that I usually do. So, for 2018 that meant a total of 5,672 pages of books read, a huge drop-off from my typical year.

But, on the other hand, that limited number of books read (a total of 17) allowed me to get a better picture of the kinds of books I am typically reading. 2018 was interesting – fully a quarter of the books I read were related in some form or fashion to the book of Revelation (two commentaries and two books related to apocalyptic literature). Another quarter of my reading was related to spirituality and spiritual disciplines. You would think I would be better at maintaining my spiritual life, but, you would be wrong.

In the “no surprise here” category, three books on my completed list related to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Last year I completed the entire 16 volume set of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (English edition), so in 2018 I only read books related to Bonhoeffer.

The other books I read in 2018 were a hodgepodge of academic type books. I very rarely ever read fiction (some would say that is a huge omission, but I have a hard enough time buying good non-fiction books. I don’t know how to begin to find good fiction books).

Maybe I should add that a huge accomplishment I completed in 2018 was to take my Revised Standard Version, my New Revised Standard Version, and my English Standard Version copies of the Bible and begin marking them in various colors to help me track various themes and critical texts. That took quite a bit of time, but I learned some interesting things about translation issues even within one single family of translations (the three translations are really closely related). I may go through another translation or two with the same process. In 2019 that would be the NKJV and, if I add another one, would be the Common English Bible.

Already on tap for 2019 are three books I did not get to in 2018, and if all goes according to plan I will be able to provide reviews of those books in the coming months.

If any of my readers have suggestions for good theological books, please pass them along to me. I have the strange belief that if I am not learning something, then I am going backwards. I do not like going backwards! If any of my suggestions prove to be beneficial to you, let me know that as well. It would be nice to know that I have helped a fellow traveler out along the way.

Let us purpose to ascend higher by climbing lower in 2019!

My Love Affair With Books

A couple (or more) posts back I asked for a response to the question, “Who is (are) your favorite books/authors?” While the response to that question did not fully show up here, on another site it created quite a conversation – and I loved every response. A comment was made that preachers must be readers of books. I cannot tell you how much I agree with that statement.

Our current infatuation with “social media” is destroying the American brain. I know some may think that is a harsh condemnation, but I firmly believe it to be so. Twitter, Facebook, other social media sites, and even blogs (yes, even this one) have finished warping the American attention span that started being whittled away with the 30 minute sitcom on TV. I remember reading the thoughts of a research guru who suggested that if an author cannot make his or her argument in the first “x” number of pages of a book (I forget the exact number but in was in the teens), that millennials and even some in the other age groups would not bother to finish reading the book. Even in this space, once I get up to about 1,000 words in a post I get nervous, because I know that people will not bother to get to the end of the post.

That is just so sad. When I was young I remember people making fun of the Readers Digest condensations of such books like War and Peace, Gone With the Wind and even Moby Dick. Imagine now – even a condensation would be too long!

I love books, and I fear for the time that we will not be able to follow extensive arguments – arguments that stretch over chapters, not just pages. Some thoughts just cannot be summarized in 15 pages. And if you have to limit the size of the book to 125 pages because the audience just cannot follow an argument any longer than that — well, what is going to happen to our educational future?

Imagine Beethoven being told he had to produce an entire Symphony in only ten pages of score. Imagine Shakespeare being told that if his plays lasted more than 30 minutes he could not keep his audience’s attention. Psalm 119 runs 176 verses long – ponderous, repetitious, magisterial.

I have had a life long love affair with books. It continues to this day. C.S. Lewis is reported to have said that there is not a book long enough nor a cup of tea big enough to suit him. Where would we be without C.S. Lewis?

Thanks to all who chimed in on my “Who Rocks Your World” question. It was deeply gratifying to know that so many folks are reading so many books – in extremely diverse subject matters and with a wide variety of authors.

Do yourself a favor and dig out an old book and brew yourself a big cup of tea (or coffee) and stretch your brain for a while. You will be glad you did!

(and this post took far less than 1,000 words!)

On the Inherent (and Therefore Necessary) Weaknesses of Education

Don’t know why this post popped into my head this morning – but I rarely understand anything that goes on inside my head.

On the one hand, there is an inherent weakness to education. That weakness was succinctly identified by our Lord, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a  servant above his master.” (Matthew 10:24, RSV) In the Paul Smith paraphrase, that means no matter how hard you try, you will never be smarter than your teacher – in any subject, whether it be theology, farming, or flying airplanes.

But, we cannot live without education. A father teaches his son how to drive a tractor, cultivate the soil, plant the seeds, administer pesticides and fertilizer, and then when and how to harvest. Certified flight instructors are necessary to teach the next generation of pilots, otherwise there would be an awful lot of empty airplanes parked at airports. And, love ’em or hate ’em, there are professors of theology that continue the art and skill of interpreting and teaching the Bible.

Now, if I understand Jesus right, what he is saying is that a student will never rise above the skill and knowledge of a single teacher. Having been both a student and a teacher, I can see this on so many different levels. I will never be able to achieve the heights of my instructors – either in aviation or theology. I could never teach everything that I know – not because I have such a vast repertoire of knowledge, its just that there are things that a person cannot teach.

So, how does mankind continue to grow in knowledge? How is it that we can fly spaceships now when Orville and Wilbur only flew a few feet?

We multiply our teachers! We build, layer upon layer, on the accumulated knowledge of the ages.

When I was in flight school I had several different instructors. At first this bothered me, because I really, really liked my instructor for my basic flight certificate. When I became an instructor, we never allowed one student to stay with one instructor for two successive certificates or ratings. Why? Because an instructor can never teach everything he/she knows, and a student can never rise above his/her instructor. But, if you multiply instructors, the learning curve never really flattens out. There is always something a different instructor knows, or a different trick, or a different way of approaching a problem. Multiple instructors provide a solid foundation for future learning.

A truism that is becoming a mantra for my life is this: If you only read what you have always read, and if you only hear what you have always heard, you will never learn. You may be reminded, you may be edified, you may be encouraged, you may be blessed in a number of ways. But you will never learn. If you want to learn, you have to be challenged by thoughts and ideas that you have never considered before.

Buy a book from an author you probably disagree with. Listen to a lecture by a teacher from a background different from yours. Challenge yourself with a concept that grates against your sensibilities. One possible result is that you learn why you disagree with that author or concept (I am only too familiar with that result).

On the other hand, you might just learn something!